Come on, politicians, let's have debates
The first of three debates in the American presidential election took place on Wednesday night, and there could hardly be a starker contrast with what passes for political discourse in Trinidad and Tobago.
To many Americans' surprise, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney won the debate against President Barack Obama, with a CNN poll showing 67 per cent of viewers gave Mr Romney the thumbs-up. Mr Romney's strong showing went against his several gaffes over past months, while Mr Obama displayed none of the rhetorical gifts and charm which helped him win the Oval Office four years ago. But there are two debates to come.
What is instructive—or, rather, what should be instructive—to T&T's politicians was the content of the discussion and the demeanour of both candidates. While it is a truism in electoral politics everywhere that candidates win based on emotional appeal, in developed countries part of the emotional appeal depends on intellectual ability.
Mr Romney was relaxed and affable, but he also had a clear grasp of the facts related to the economy and social programmes such as health insurance. So did Mr Obama, but he seemed less engaged and more professorial.
Contrast this with the approach preferred by T&T leaders. In the last general election, the Chamber of Commerce attempted to arrange a debate between then-Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Prime Minister Patrick Manning. Mr Manning refused to accept the challenge, instead opting for a staged television interview with a compliant host and three deferential journalists. And, just two Wednesdays ago, T&T saw the vulgar display of five Government officials engaging in old talk under the pretence of democratic discourse.
It need hardly be said that in developed societies, any aspiring leader who refused to debate an opponent would have absolutely no chance in any election. Such events showcase the candidates' position on important issues and, perhaps more importantly, their character. This is not the case here, because our politicians know they can coast to electoral victory on mauvais-langue and picong. In 2010, Mrs Persad-Bissessar was willing to enter such a debate; will this be the case in 2015? In fact, there is no need to even wait that long. The Tobago House of Assembly and Local Government elections are due within months, and debates between the various parties would help arouse greater interest in these usually constrained events.
Citizens would almost certainly welcome such campaign debates. Even though American political culture bears little relation to our own, the Obama/Romney face-off sparked much discussion in the social media here. So our politicians, by refusing to have debates, are only exhibiting their own shortcomings as leaders in failing to raise the bar.